Once upon a time my family was traveling home from our summer camping escapades when my little sister, age four, pointed at a farmer’s field, chirping merrily from the way back of the station wagon: “Why are those cows riding piggyback?”
The resulting cringe from me and my three brothers, our grandmother, and our father did nothing to dampen our mother’s earnest enthusiasm to enlighten. Over the seats my sister came crawling, from way back to front, where our mother whispered feverishly into her ear while the rest of us broiled uncomfortably, trapped in the car, suddenly far too aware of our bodies, our intimate kinship, our grandmother, who’d given birth to our mother, who’d given birth to us, and both of whom must have had sex in order to do so. We tried not to touch, we studied our feet, my father turned up the radio. And still there were those cows, out in their field, some of them blamelessly chewing grass but others having intercourse in full view of the highway. “Oh!” my little sister finally said, frowning, red and infuriated, launched into the same yucky muck as everyone else in the car.
So go many sex education moments. The cringe, the embarrassment, the explanations that don’t ever quite cover the entire mystery. “Why?” my fourth-grade class asked our reluctant teacher, when she explained what went where and how it happened and the perils/miracles that would ensue. Our faces said, “Ewww!” Why would anyone want to do such a thing? The science we understood; the mechanics were clear. It was the desire that eluded us. Why, you’d have to be crazy to agree to that stuff! Our dissatisfaction left the teacher tongue-tied, depleted.
“You be the boy,” my cousin commanded, when we were twelve and thirteen. That meant I was on top, at my grandmother’s house, where we were spending the night. We lay that way for a while, listening to the summer crickets out the window, and then she took her turn being the boy. That was as much as we knew: The boy was on top. Over the years, I figured out the rest, one wrestling match after another, one fumbling opponent/boyfriend at a time. I was a Girl Scout in the wilderness, sure that I could make a fire if I found the proper objects to rub together. By the time I got to college, combustion had been accomplished. What I didn’t figure out by trial and error I learned from books. My father had a large library of pornography; I was an avid reader.
Since I was a kid, though, it seems that parenting has been reinvented. My generation of mothers tends to explain everything, and for good reason. It’s dangerous out there; our kids need to be better armed than we were. I pledged early on that I would be a more frank communicator, that I wouldn’t allow any cringing or shame into my relations with my children. And still the gaps, still the inexplicable.
When I was nine months pregnant with my second child, a boy, his three-year-old sister suddenly had a thought. She interrupted our storytelling session on the couch to scowl at my belly. “How’s he gonna get outta there?”
“Well . . .” said I.
“From your mouth?” she asked, making a horrified face. And I was tempted to tell her, Oh, it’s far worse than that! I explained in the same calm tone of voice that my mother must have used with my sister, concerning the cows, just what was what. Her furrowed brow said she didn’t believe it; if I hadn’t already been through it once before, I might not have believed it either. Instinctively, she seemed to know that she didn’t yet want to find out how he’d gotten in there, and so didn’t ask. And though I would have been happy to explain the process, the much less clear piece of the equation dates back to her father’s and my courtship. Back when our children were not even what some euphemistic winking type might call “a twinkle in their father’s eye.”
The twinkle is the problem, isn’t it? How much simpler to be delivered by a stork or found in a cabbage patch or sent by God.
Later, when my daughter was seven and her brother four, their then babysitter brought them home one day in a maniacal bluster. She’d turned them loose at a park in our little city in New Mexico, and they’d found what they thought were balloons. Before she could get to them, they’d filled the “balloons” with water. They’d thrown the “balloons” at each other. They’d even been putting the “balloons” in their mouths to drink the water.
I rushed my daughter to the bathtub (why?) while she sobbed and sobbed. The babysitter had provided half-information to the children on the ride home, managing to work everybody into a fever pitch. I phoned the hospital, where an amused doctor in the ER told me I didn’t need to worry about AIDS, that the virus would have been killed within seconds of a condom’s being discarded. This fear allayed, I quizzed my traumatized daughter, discovering as we both calmed down that the “balloons” had been in a box, unused; she and her brother had merely filled them at the drinking fountain and tossed them harmlessly around. The nightmare had begun when their babysitter finally caught up; it was her panic that set them off.
“What’s a condom?” my son asked, maybe two years after that, in the middle of a Seinfeld episode where a vividly colored one figured in the plot, Kramer bursting through the door, Elaine shoving Jerry in the chest, George holding some small blue object in his hand, delighted to learn that his “boys can swim.”
“Lalalalalalalalala!” exclaimed our daughter adamantly, the older sister, plugging her ears and dashing out of the room. Patiently, my husband and I explained, in that saccharine birds-and-bees voice that everyone knows so